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Baked goods

Steven Wingate returns with his first book and growing prestige

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Sometimes mixed-up burritos propel the universal search for love and companionship. - SALLY PIETTE
  • Sally Piette
  • Sometimes mixed-up burritos propel the universal search for love and companionship.

I think of myself as a "local boy makes good' story," wrote author and former Colorado Springs resident Steven Wingate in his e-mail to the Indy.

A year ago, Wingate's first collection of fiction, Wifeshopping, won the Bakeless Prize in Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vt. It beat out some 550 other entries to earn the honor, and the accompanying book deal with Houghton Mifflin.

With Wifeshopping having been published July 1, Wingate is now on a tour that brings him to Poor Richard's Bookstore, where he worked in the early '90s at the art cinema that preceded Kimball's Twin Peak Theater.

Coming full circle, with good reviews in publications like the L.A. Times, after Bread Loaf honors? To hear Colorado College English professor David Mason talk about it, this is a "local boy makes real good" story.

"It's quite a coup for Steven to have won this," says Mason, who's bringing Wingate to campus in December as part of the Visiting Writers Series. "Bread Loaf is one of the oldest and most prestigious of the writing programs in the U.S."

The art of chaos

Amy Hempel an author worshipped by the likes of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk judged Bread Loaf's 2007 contest and later wrote Wifeshopping's foreword, praising Wingate's "surpassing skill as a writer."

"The lovers in these stories are set to find The Flaw," she writes, "the excuse to back out, to tear down the picture of a life together."

Wingate acknowledges that he's "made many of the same mistakes" as his main characters, most of whom are male. As they're laid out, the 13 stories progress from people who are lesser "evolved than others" to those who have a better chance of making relationships work.

In "A Story about Two Prisoners," two elderly residents of the same apartment building fail to find the courage to make the first move on one another, though they both secretly harbor desire. The man drums along with his palms on his kitchen table loudly to music every evening, and the woman below believes it's a secret code. She decodes a series of odd words that read almost like poetry, singing them back to him at night, trying to connect.

Later, "3 a.m. Ambulance Driver" has two strangers meet over a mixed-up food order inside an all-night burrito shop. Wingate describes the characters scanning each others' hands for wedding rings as "the first steps in the copulation waltz of the divorced and depressed." The guy thinks, "She could be the one. I could make her the one. I could make a thousand women like her the one."

This is the kind of action Wingate describes as "chaos," because that term better conveys how "woefully incomplete" we are in our self-knowledge.

"We go about acting in this world in ways we don't understand," he says.

Book monkey be gone

Wingate, 44, was born in Hackensack, N.J., but spent his teenage years living in Security, "where I really grew up." The high plains landscape with a glimpse over the shoulder at the Front Range and forward view of empty grassland inspired his writing.

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"It's a place where a lot of stories unfold for me," he says, noting that a follow-up novel to Wifeshopping is set in Colorado.

His current home in Lafayette is in similar terrain. As many times as Wingate tried to leave the state, he always washed back up again, and finally accepted it as home for good.

After two years at Colorado College "the grant program I was on got cut, thanks to Ronald Reagan" Wingate finished his BA at the University of Massachusetts and nabbed an MFA in film school at Florida State University. From there, he gave a shot at selling screenplays in Los Angeles before returning a bit disillusioned to Colorado Springs. (At least disillusioned enough to write film reviews for the Indy for a brief stint in the '90s.)

The experience, paired with later work in the film studies department and on the International Film Series at the University of Colorado at Boulder, eventually helped him decide he'd rather be writing fiction.

Wingate spent a year and a half studying on a fellowship under Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Olen Butler in Louisiana, and painstakingly revised the stories that now comprise Wifeshopping over the course of the last 15 years. Early last year, he informed his wife that he'd be using their tax return to send out manuscripts, rather than take a vacation. The payoff, of course, has been worth more than a handful of days at the beach.

"It's a huge welcome into the community of writers to get this prize," says Wingate. "I've been banging at the door for a long, long time trying to figure out what was really me as a writer ... I finally got that first-book monkey off my back."

The never-ending journey

Wingate's already finished what he calls "not quite a sequel" to his breakthrough work, a story about "love, grief and prescription pharmaceuticals." In the novel, Wingate says the characters "follow up on Wifeshopping's search and what happens when you find that person and say, "I do' and have to work it out from there."

Houghton Mifflin currently has an option on the work.

Quoting from Wifeshopping's promotional materials, I ask Wingate if he really thinks that the search for love, companionship and understanding is "the ultimate human quest." Jokingly, he informs me that those are the publisher's words. But he says he believes they're at least part of the quest, in terms of learning to give one's self to another.

"That's why fairy tales end with "happy ever after,' he says. "People meet and commit themselves to be there for each other, and that sort of opens the door to the rest of the world.

"My hope for the characters in Wifeshopping is that they'll really do that that someday, they'll find the person they're meant to be with. And then it opens the doors to the rest of the world for them."

matthew@csindy.com


Steven Wingate reading from and signing Wifeshopping
Poor Richard's Bookstore, 320 N. Tejon St.
Thursday, Aug. 7, 5-7 p.m.
Free; call 578-0012 or visit stevenwingate.com for more.

(Wingate returns for a reading at 7 p.m., Dec. 4 in CC's McHugh Commons for the Colorado College Visiting Writers Series.)

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